Rock the e-vote

Some call it “black-box voting.” Others say it’s a way to bring democracy into the 21st century. Whatever you want to call it, the decision has been made. By the June 6 primary election, precinct voters in Butte County will cast their votes not on paper ballots, but by computer touch-screens.

The die was cast Tuesday, when the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 (Chico Supervisor Mary Anne Houx dissented) to buy $3.2 million worth of voting equipment from Diebold Electronic Systems, a Texas company that has become a lightning rod for critics of electronic voting. The controversial equipment was requested by county Registrar Candace Grubbs, who this year found herself facing a situation in which it was at times doubtful an election could even be held.

The situation began in the presidential election of 2000, in which Florida voters were presented with a confusing ballot that many said caused them to cast errant votes. A recount brought up other problems with paper ballots, including the infamous hanging and pregnant chads left on many punch-through ballots.

Fallout from that still-disputed election helped usher in the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which stipulated that every polling place be accessible to the disabled by 2006. It also mandated that voters should have a way both of verifying their votes and of changing their minds mid-vote. Voting machine manufacturers saw an opportunity, and began aggressively marketing electronic voting machines, which have been around since the late 1990s.

California’s early experience with the machines was mixed. Many county registrars swear by them, and a recent test election held by the state showed them to be accurate. But in late 2004, Diebold settled a $2.6 million lawsuit with the state of California after an audit showed the company used uncertified software in 18 counties during the March 2004 primary election. This led to the company’s machines being banned from use in California, until Feb. 18, when Secretary of State Bruce McPherson made the surprise announcement that he had recertified Deibold’s Accu-touch machines.

This announcement allowed Grubbs to finally make her request to buy, with money from state and federal grants, voting machines that would comply with the new federal and state laws. But it brought with it another problem. Diebold, which also makes ATMs, has come under fire from computer security experts, skeptical politicians and voting rights activists, who have come to see the company as part of a nefarious plot to subvert the most basic right of democratic citizens—the right to vote.

“I am quite concerned about this process,” Chico State Professor Robert Bowman told the board Tuesday. He was one of three public speakers who opposed the new machines. “I am very concerned that this certification went on behind closed doors. It’s wrong. A lot of the negative press about Diebold is valid and is something we should be very circumspect about.”

Tales of Diebold’s security lapses, odd statements to the press, and old-fashioned corporate evilness abound. In 2000, problems with a Diebold memory card may have cost Al Gore 16,000 votes in one Florida County. In 2003, it was discovered that the company had posted what should have been secret programming information on an unprotected, publicly accessible computer. And in August of that same year, former Diebold CEO Walden O’Dell, an ardent supporter of President Bush, told Ohio Republicans he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.”

When the president narrowly won that state’s hotly contested 2004 election, many chalked it up to manipulation by Diebold, which supplied computerized voting equipment to several counties. Diebold now supplies voting machines to hundreds of counties across the nation, including at least 21 in California.

But with the country as polarized as it is, close elections have become more common, making accuracy and integrity in voting a passionate cause for some. Even the federal Government Accounting Office issued a report in 2005 recognizing “significant concerns about the security and reliability of electronic voting systems, citing instances of weak security controls, system design flaws, inadequate system version control, inadequate security testing, incorrect system configuration, poor security management, and vague or incomplete standards, among other issues” with some e-voting machines.

“This is going to the core of our democracy,” Bowman told the board Tuesday. “We are in great danger of losing our liberties. I saw a demonstration in February 2005 how someone could go into the mainframe and flip the numbers. A high school hacker could do it. Diebold machines are vulnerable. Unless you go through all the precinct data, no one could know …”

But Grubbs disagrees. As it is now, she said, there are already ways for dishonest officials to change election results. The reason it hasn’t happened here, she said, is that the precinct officers in her office are honest and accountable. Nothing would change in an electronic vote, she said, except the way the vote is recorded.

“A machine, once it leaves the manufacturer, is a machine. The security in the machine is going to be up to this department,” she said in a phone interview after the board meeting. “They are not hooked to the Internet, they are stand-alone and they record your vote on the hard drive, on the memory card and on the voter-verified paper audit trail. I don’t want people to be fearful. We’ve had great elections in this county and I don’t want to see that compromised.”

Grubbs admits that the recent recertification has given her what, up to this point, has been the only plausible way to even hold an election in Butte County that complies with federal and state law. But she said that isn’t the only reason for switching to an electronic vote.

“Provided we get a change in the law, we want to have vote centers, where people can go in, say you lived in Chico but worked in Oroville … you’d go into any polling location, get your correct ballot and vote. It allows us to do a lot of things that our current system does not. Our current system has severe limitations and of course is not ADA compliant. These touch screens have nice big print … You’ll cast a ballot and it will print out on the paper trail.”

The switch from the currently used Mark-A-Vote machines to the recently approved Diebold machines will not be easy to pull off this close to the election. But the harder mission for Grubbs might be convincing people that the new machines are accurate and not subject to tampering. She said she knows the public will get on board eventually.

“I am very cognizant of those concerns and I want to address them,” she said. “It’s too bad what happened in Florida. But California is not Florida. We have procedures and they have even been strengthened by all this, which is good. People are fearful … and I want them to know that the mission of this office is to see that their vote is counted correctly.”